brain health in midlife

Dementia and Exercise After 50, The Facts You Need To Know

I’ve been obsessively reading about how to keep your brain healthy, especially when you get are over 50. This is probably because I’m watching my Dad struggle with Alzheimer’s disease. It’s hard to watch someone you love change so drastically, but it’s also very motivating. What can I do to prevent this from happening to me?

It turns out you don’t have to exercise for hours every day to get the benefits for you brain. The good news is that based on the research, you don’t have to have exercised your whole life to get the benefits. It’s most important that you exercise DURING midlife and beyond. If you didn’t exercise for most of your life, it’s NOT TOO LATE. Start now.

I have to be honest, a lot of the studies I have been looking to are like trying to read Greek. Doctors are as bad at writing as they are at talking in plain English. My goal is to condense the “aha” takeaways that have actionable steps you can take.

The Facts About Exercise In Midlife

These are the nuggets that I found in the XX Brain by Lisa Mosconi. This book is all about the female brain and how to protect it from Alzheimer’s disease.

“Exercise causes actual physical changes in the brain that not only act as a safeguard against future dementia, but also invigorate our abilities to think, reason and remember the here and now.” Lisa Mosconi, PhD p. 225

“Physical activity promotes heart health, and what’s good for the heart is good for the brain.” p. 225

“Aerobic exercise, in particular – the kind of exercise that makes your heart beat faster – enhances blood flow and circulation, pumping more oxygen and nutrients to the brain.” p. 225

Lack of physical activity is currently listed as one of the top risk factors for Alzheimer’s, ranked even higher than conditions such as diabetes, obesity, or hypertension.” P. 228

“A study of 200 women followed for 44 years showed that a higher level of cardiovascular fitness at midlife was associated with very low rates of future dementia, whereas over 30 percent of those with low level cardiovascular fitness developed dementia later in life”.

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How Much Exercise Do I Need?

Studies show that you only need to exercise moderately three to five days a week. What is moderate? The best way to know that is to use a heart rate monitor. This tool takes all of the guesswork out of exercise.

For some people, moderate exercise is walking fast, but not just walking. It’s walking more like two miles in 30 minutes. For others, it might take jogging or walking up and down stairs. The magic of the heart rate monitor is that there’s no fooling it. You might tell yourself, as I did, that I went for a walk so that’s my exercise. But when I put the monitor on I could see in the numbers that walking at a moderate pace was not enough.

A heart rate monitor is not very expensive and pairs up to a phone (approximately $50). Then you get a reading that looks like the one below. (I use the Polar app on my phone with this Wahoo heart rate monitor).

heart rate zones

The one I use has zones that show you when you are exercising “hard” enough. You don’t have to use a heart rate monitor, you can also judge by how you feel. Do you feel a little out of breath? If not, you probably aren’t exercising hard enough.

If you want to read more:

Regular Exercise Changes the Brain – Harvard Health Publishing

Midlife Cardiovascular Fitness – Pub

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